Historical rights (and wrongs): who owns the past in Kaliningrad?

The Orthodox Church's acquisition of culturally significant buildings in Kaliningrad raises questions into ownership of the past in Russia's exclave on the Baltic coast.


Vicky Arnold
1 April 2015

Despite wartime devastation and more than 40 years of Soviet suppression of its German history, East Prussia is still present in the landscape of the Kaliningrad region, Russia’s exclave on the Baltic coast.

Old Catholic and Lutheran churches, as well as the castles of Teutonic knights dot this territory, which was incorporated into the USSR in the aftermath of World War II. In 2010, 100 of these buildings, in various stages of repair, were transferred en masse to the Russian Orthodox Church, raising questions about the complicated attitude to the past in a region where, in comparison to the rest of Russia, the Orthodox Church's roots are shallow.

History doesn't start in 1945

Present-day Kaliningrad Oblast was previously part of the German province of East Prussia. While the German population either fled or was deported between 1945 and 1948, in 1946, Kaliningrad, or Königsberg as it was known previously, was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic of the USSR.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the region sandwiched between Poland and newly independent Lithuania, and Kaliningrad is now a small outpost of Russia surrounded by the European Union. Historically Lutheran and Catholic, Kaliningrad is still full of tangible reminders of this Prussian past, and has the largest numbers of registered communities of these denominations in the country. By the number of registered communities, Kaliningrad has the largest presence of Lutherans (46 parishes) and Catholics (25 parishes) of any region in Russia.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church faced a daunting task across Russia.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church faced a daunting task across Russia, coping with a devastated sacred landscape. Soviet Kaliningrad was conceived as the perfect Soviet region, and therefore as an entirely atheist society and landscape, with no Orthodox presence (at least officially) and no acknowledgement of pre-war religious traditions. In Kaliningrad, these problems were compounded by the region’s particular history and geopolitical isolation. There was no pre-Soviet Orthodox heritage of old churches and local saints, and no social history of Stalin-era mass repressions and new martyrs, and so no continuity even of the often fractured sort found elsewhere in the country.

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A Lutheran church in Kaliningrad. photo (c) Arnold

The Church has therefore set out both to embed itself materially and socially in the public life and landscape of the region, and to construct an image of Kaliningrad as part of Orthodox Russia – part of the 'Russian World' ('Russkiy Mir' ), Patriarch Kirill’s favoured concept of a civilisational space bound together by the traditional values of Russian culture and the Orthodox faith.

Golden domes and Orthodox crosses now gleam on the red-brick German churches housing Orthodox parishes. New churches, which have proliferated across the region, have been designed in styles familiar from towns and villages in Russia, with tent roofs, bright cupolas, and log-built or white stone walls.

Disparate fates

At the Pokrovskaya Church in a southern industrial suburb of Kaliningrad, they are happy for visitors to take photographs – though tourists rarely reach these parts. The golden icons and bold frescoes of saints and martyrs are a surprise after the exterior of the church – dark Neo-Gothic brick, a tall greenish copper spire, built by German artisans in this workers’ district of Königsberg after the First World War.

The current Russian Orthodox parish is modestly busy, with a steady stream of worshippers dropping in to light candles and pray throughout the day, as well as the regular round of services, a Sunday school, and a choir. The building, given to the parish in 1990, is in good repair, its history as both a Lutheran and an Orthodox place of worship detailed in a series of photographs and information panels.

The cemetery in the village of Trostniki (formerly Bothenen) is still watched over by its fourteenth century church, although only its tower and ruined walls remain. Damaged by shelling in 1945 and left to decay ever since, the cemetery is variously used as a rubbish dump, drinking den, and public toilet by passers-by. When journalists from the New Kaliningrad news website visited in September 2013, they found several German graves had been opened, the bones scattered by the 'black diggers' who have long plagued old burial grounds in the region in their search for valuables.

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Insterburg castle in Chernyakhovsk. photo (c) Arnold

The current Russian Orthodox parish is modestly busy.

The Russian Orthodox Diocese, to whose ownership the church was transferred in 2010, could not comment on the grave robbing, or the lack of rubbish collection, or the non-existent security at the site. Only sympathetic locals sometimes leave flowers on the memorial to German soldiers killed in the First World War.

Mass transfer of property

In October 2010, the Kaliningrad regional government approved a law passing ownership of 14 former Lutheran and Catholic churches and Teutonic castles to the Russian Orthodox Church. This was the last of several such transfers, which totalled roughly 100 properties – ranging from ruins to valuable cultural amenities. As Kaliningrad was part of the German province of East Prussia before 1945, none of these buildings had ever belonged to the Orthodox Church.

In November 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev signed Federal Law No. 327. This law requires the return of public property to religious organisations which can demonstrate historical rights to it. The law, which had been in preparation for nearly two years, was welcomed by Patriarch Kirill, who happens to be the head of the Kaliningrad diocese: he called it 'the restoration of justice'. The Lutherans, Catholics, and cultural community of Kaliningrad, however, feared that it meant nothing of the sort for their region.

While it is often a point of pride for citizens, the heritage of Königsberg and East Prussia is accepted and promoted by the region’s Moscow-oriented authorities only insofar as it may be safely packaged for public consumption on their terms – in museums, German-themed restaurants, and souvenir shops. The possibility of the landscape of East Prussia acquiring meaning and value outside these safe limits and with the involvement of such 'non-Russian' groups as the Lutheran and Catholic communities does not fit into the ideal of Kaliningrad that the regional and federal governments – and the Russian Orthodox Church – want to construct.

This pre-emptive circumvention of federal legislation was not a staggering piece of regional cheek, nor did it ride roughshod over the Church, although as a result the Diocese has ended up in the somewhat unenviable position of being responsible for a large quantity of real estate which it cannot afford to maintain. The precise origins of the mass transfer remain murky to outsiders – almost everybody I asked had a different answer, attributing ultimate responsibility to, variously, the regional government, the Patriarch, Vladimir Putin, or the 'centre' in general. It is possible, however, to draw some conclusions from the actions of the Diocese and the regional government as reported in the local media throughout 2009 and 2010.

From May 2009 onwards, shortly after its establishment as a separate entity with newly elected Patriarch Kirill at its head, Kaliningrad Diocese made a series of requests for the ownership of a number of buildings. Most were former Lutheran churches, usually those already in reasonable physical condition, including those in surrounding villages . Kirill also asked for Königsberg Cathedral itself, the only survivor of the old city’s bomb-flattened centre, now restored as a concert hall.

The Diocese’s reasoning was explicitly connected to the imminent passing of the federal law. In an interview with the New Kaliningrad website on 27 October 2010, Viktor Vasiliyev, head of the Diocese property department, described the potential application of the law to Kaliningrad as 'a catastrophe in the spheres of culture and education', suggesting that returning former churches to the Lutherans and Catholics would be tantamount to closing down the institutions they housed.

In early 2010, Governor Georgy Boos attempted to persuade President Medvedev to exclude Kaliningrad from the proposed legislation, but he was refused. The presidential administration told him that “the region should itself prepare for the introduction of the law.” Subsequently, the regional government hurriedly made arrangements to transfer the relevant properties to the Russian Orthodox Church en masse, before the Duma’s second reading of the bill. Several properties were transferred from federal to regional ownership throughout 2010 to expedite this process, indicating the federal government’s complicity in Kaliningrad’s pre-emption of the law.

The Diocese has expressed its dissatisfaction with the haste of the process. It appears that the Diocese would have preferred the exclusion of Kaliningrad from the scope of the law to the responsibility of taking on such a large number of buildings at once – this would have allowed former churches to remain state property and enabled the Diocese to continue requesting the transfer of individual properties as and when they wished. Nevertheless, Kirill positioned the Diocese both as the guardian of Kaliningrad’s cultural life (the Lutheran and Catholic Churches were implicitly not to be trusted not to turn out theatres and schools from their accommodation) and as protector of Kaliningrad’s very existence, by preventing the possibility of a 'restitution precedent' being set.

'I saved these buildings for Russia, and for Kaliningraders, in particular.'

The regional law transferring the bulk of the disputed properties was passed under the auspices of Boos’ successor as governor, Nikolai Tsukanov. At a meeting of youth organisations in January 2011, Tsukanov justified his government’s actions by stating that 'the Russian Orthodox Church is the foundation of the Russian state ' and that granting the Church ownership kept the properties out of the hands of 'those people from the past, who may claim these buildings.'

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A photo board of parish life in a Lutheran church in Kaliningrad. photo (c) Arnold

The Orthodox Church thus presented the ideal solution – as an officially acceptable bearer and protector of Russian culture and values, positioned as representative of the people of Kaliningrad and therefore as an appropriate guardian of their heritage. The Lutheran and Catholic communities, though long established, were positioned as outsiders with potentially dangerous foreign connections. In a rather contradictory manner, both Tsukanov and the Diocese claimed that the present-day Lutherans and Catholics – Russian-Germans from Central Asia, Poles and Lithuanians, and Russian converts – are not the descendants of their Prussian predecessors, and so the transfer fairly reflects the ethnic and religious make-up of Kaliningrad.

'I saved these buildings for Russia,' said Tsukanov. 'And for Kaliningraders, in particular.'

The reaction

Writing in December 2010, Anna Karpenko, a political scientist at Immanuel Kant University in Kaliningrad, criticised the 'old discourses based on suspicion, mistrust and reticence' which surrounded the transfer and the 'evocation of potential threats' the regional government used to justify it. This rhetoric, in Karpenko's view, fuelled a sense of urgency which permitted no public discussion or expert consultation before the regional law was passed. She also pointed out the importance of Kaliningrad’s cultural heritage not only to the region’s residents, 'but also to our European neighbours.'

In November 2010, shortly after the passing of the regional law, 50 members of Kaliningrad’s cultural establishment – senior museum staff, journalists, academics, archivists and architects – sent an open letter to President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin, and Patriarch Kirill, objecting to the property transfer and questioning its legality. In three and a half days after the publication of the letter a further 900 people added their signatures.

The letter’s signatories point out that Kaliningraders are 'Russians responsible for pan-European historical heritage' and that a change of ownership of this heritage is 'of great social importance.'

Requests for a suspension of the transfer process while public hearings were held and for assurances as to the application of federal preservation and fire safety laws went unheeded.

Three years later, one of the letters' signatories, a university lecturer, told me that he felt attitudes to Catholics and Lutherans in Kaliningrad society had 'hardened' as a result of the 'foreign influences' rhetoric deployed by Tsukanov and the Diocese during the property transfer. Previously, Catholics and Lutherans had been seen as 'just another religious group'.

Since 2012, the situation was not helped by the introduction of the Foreign Agents law, which requires requiring non-governmental organisations to register as 'foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad and engage in ill-defined 'political activities' . Such attitudes, however, do not seem to have translated into any hostile actions on the part of individuals, according to Lutheran and Catholic clergy.

The idea that full engagement with the cultural heritage of East Prussia would be difficult, if not impossible, when access is controlled by the Orthodox Church was echoed by NGO workers when I visited Insterburg Castle in the small town of Chernyakhovsk, where volunteers have laboured for years both to conserve the crumbling buildings and to turn the site into a centre for art and history projects. They are trying, they said, to cultivate appreciation in the people of Chernyakhovsk for their own town and region, 'to create an active society'.

The buildings

The transferred properties range from ruins of which barely a wall is left standing to substantial structures long occupied (and relatively well looked-after) by secular institutions. In addition to old Lutheran and Catholic churches, there are castles built by the Teutonic knights, as well as former parish schools and houses – anything, in other words, in which there might once have been a place of worship or which once belonged to the Lutheran or Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church is now the owner of major cultural and academic institutions.

This blanket approach has meant that the Orthodox Churchis now the owner of major cultural and academic institutions such as the Kaliningrad Puppet Theatre and the Kaliningrad branch of the Institute of Earth Magnetism (part of the Russian Academy of Sciences), as well as almost-empty rural plots of land, dozens of 14t – – 19th century churches in urgent need of conservation, and, in a turn of events which caused some amusement in the city, one of Kaliningrad’s most popular nightclubs – Vagonka, housed in the last church to be built in Königsberg before the war.

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Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. photo (c) Arnold

The list did not go unchallenged. Intervention from the Lithuanian consul meant that a former church housing a museum dedicated to the Lithuanian writer Kristijonas Donelaitis was removed. The Cathedral, too, remained in state ownership, allegedly after Angela Merkel personally appealed to Vladmir Putin.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Kaliningrad

To gain perspective on why Kirill, Boos, and Tsukanov made the decisions they did, it's worth considering the position of the Orthodox Churchin Kaliningrad. Nowhere else in Russia has there been such a lack of Church history to draw on or infrastructure to build upon.

Soviet-era believers sometimes travelled to neighbouring Lithuania, where a few Orthodox churches remained open. Although the Baptists managed to register officially in 1967 and even build a prayer house in 1978, Orthodox requests to establish a registered community (and thereby be permitted to operate openly) were repeatedly turned down. It was not until 1985 that the first Orthodox parish was allowed to open, and was given the ruin of a 13th-century church in the west of the city as its first place of worship.

Fast-forward to 2009, on his election as Patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill had been leading Orthodox life in Kaliningrad for 24 years. Shortly after Kirill's enthronement in 2009, the Diocese of Smolensk and Kaliningrad was split into two separate entities, and Kirill announced his intention to remain in charge of the latter. A vicar bishop, Serafim, is responsible for day-to-day affairs, but ultimate authority remains with Kirill, who visits once or twice a year.

Although the Patriarchate has no explicit policy on Kaliningrad, Kirill’s retention of his role as head of the Diocese and his personal involvement in the mass property transfer suggest that the region’s situation merits 'special attention', as one university academic phrased it to me. For Kirill, Kaliningrad is a 'battlefield', according to Svetlana, a local television journalist, and the Patriarch makes definite efforts to prevent any 'drifting' on the part of his Orthodox flock.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the city centre of Kaliningrad is both a striking symbol of the region’s Orthodox identity, its 'Russianness', and the place in which that identity is most explicitly enacted. Its architecture deliberately echoes Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, whose name it shares. At the consecration ceremony in 1996, President Boris Yeltsin joined Kirill to place a capsule of earth from the site of the Moscow cathedral inside the foundations, 'as a symbol', claimed a 2006 history of the Diocese, 'of the continuity and unbreakable spiritual ties between Kaliningrad and Russia.'

Consequences and prospects

Four years on, the cultural institutions housed in city churches remain intact and active, although as is clear from the example of the Philharmonic Hall above, they are in a somewhat precarious position under their new landlords.

Federal Law No. 327 specifically states that if a building has already been transferred into the ownership of one religious organisations, it cannot then be passed to another, effectively closing off any possibility for the Lutherans or Catholics to use this legislation to make a claim on any property now belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The majority of rural churches remain in a dangerously dilapidated and worsening state.

The majority of rural churches remain in a dangerously dilapidated and worsening state. The Diocese does not have sufficient resources to carry out the extensive specialist work required. Most sites still do not have even basic security. In March 2013, the regional service for the preservation of monuments found that two thirds of the properties it surveyed were in 'a poor or neglected condition'. In June 2014, the Diocese succeeded in securing funding for the restoration of seven churches and one castle.

The priority now should be to conserve vulnerable properties and, in as many cases as possible, find a role for them which would both ensure their survival and serve a purpose in often-poor and remote rural districts, while protecting those features (such as frescoes and wall paintings) which make them artistically valuable. It is clear from the examples of German churches transferred to Orthodox parishes in the 1990s that a building’s conservation and continued productive use is better served by being given to an existing community of people who have a specific function in mind for it and the motivation to take at least basic care of the structure.

The need for local engagement is therefore vital. Local priests and small groups of Orthodox parishioners have recently begun subbotniki (periods of organised voluntary work) at old German churches in their parishes, clearing rubbish and undergrowth, which is a hopeful sign. Ideally, such efforts should also involve the Lutheran and Catholic communities, but this is unlikely to happen.

Why does it matter?

The scale and speed of the property transfer drew unprecedented public and media scrutiny in Kaliningrad. The transfer prompted renewed debate over the region’s identity (admittedly a recurring topic, not least with regard to possible renaming) and forced attention onto the East Prussian legacy in the built environment from a wider perspective – not only as crumbling, burdensome wrecks, potential tourist attractions, or handsome civic buildings in urban areas, but also as a landscape with acute resonance in the present day for certain groups of Kaliningrad residents positioned as outsiders by the rhetoric of the regional government, as well as for cultural non-governmental organisations and for people outside the region.

The treatment of cultural heritage in Kaliningrad and the roles played (and permitted to be played) by religious organisations matter because of the complex, contested, perhaps unresolvable issues of the ownership and use of history in an outpost of the Russian state – especially in the light of the recent annexation of another such outpost in the form of Crimea.

But a warning note was struck for me by Aleksei, a journalist of New Kaliningrad, the online news portal which has carried out a wide-ranging survey of the condition of the transferred churches. Aleksei pointed out that, for many people in the region, the issue of who owned old German buildings and the morality and practicality thereof simply matters little when they have so many other, more immediate concerns. Why should they care particularly that a medieval church is falling down in their village, when the village has no proper paved roads and there are no jobs in the area? For rural residents trying to make ends meet in districts far from the regional capital, a crumbling brick wall may be merely a good source of bricks.

For the academics, journalists, NGO staff and cultural workers who wrote the open letter to Putin and Medvedev in 2010, history does not begin or end in 1945 or 1985. The heritage of Soviet Kaliningrad, as embodied in the educational and artistic institutions housed in the old city churches, should be respected. Equally, the German past should be embraced as a source of strength and interest, in the hope of fostering an engaged, outward-looking, historically and culturally aware civil society. The landscape of Kaliningrad, urban and rural, should be a site in which local pride and international ties alike are nurtured. Such an ideal is threatened, in this view, by the granting of control over it to a single, nationally oriented, conservative religious organisation.

Although there are a few positive signs in terms of parish-level engagement with individual sites, and the granting of federal funds for restoration of a small number of buildings, there is little evidence that the Diocese intends to cooperate with either local NGOs or German or other foreign organisations. How the Orthodox Church will ultimately fare as custodian of a pan-European heritage remains to be seen.

The research for this article was carried out in August and September 2013 and funded by a CEELBAS internship, which included five weeks in Kaliningrad researching the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church and its implications for the region’s cultural heritage.

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